by John Garcia III
Before I begin this blog post, I feel it will only be right to share my background and how I came to be in my current position. At the ripe age of 25 I decided to give up my career, working at NASA in Southern California, to become a middle school counselor in West Phoenix. Inevitably, some may say, “Why would anyone do that?” Well, when I was at NASA, I realized that I was the embodiment of the American Dream. I had overcome the barriers, outlasted the struggles and persevered to have a life I could scarcely conceive. But while I was there I also realized that I was the exception, not the rule. Too many students were struggling academically and failing to see the importance of higher education as a means to economic and social advancement. My goal became to show students the many possibilities for their future and to help them successfully navigate that future.
Now as a Harvard doctoral student, my goal is to look for ways to transform education in order to make sure that all students are prepared academically, socially and emotionally to go on to higher education and become leaders in their respective fields. This summer I had the opportunity to work for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEE) and see the many collaborations and policies that were helping students in an assembly of ways. There were advocacy groups, community organizations, colleges, foundations and policy makers all focused on making their communities better places. My own group, WHIEEH, recently came out with a Financial Aid Guide in English and Spanish that can help Hispanic parents make sense of how to pay for college. This guide was revolutionary in the sense that is has a section on resources for undocumented students and STEM based majors. Subsequently, I took a position with Jobs for the Future, working on middle school re-design – infusing more career exploration and real world experiences throughout the school day.
Yet, for all of the great work that is taking place and all of the incredible programs for students, I still believe that the greatest resource is inside of students themselves. Here are some tips I have learned along the way (backed up by research of course) that I wish someone would have told me earlier:
- Don’t be afraid to apply to your dream school - Don’t let grades, test scores, finances or self-doubt hold you back. Schools are looking for leaders and students with a diverse set of experiences. Plus many top-tier schools provide generous financial aid packages
- Find a major/career that is something you care about – it matches your values, interests and you enjoy the work - Your work and your identity are intertwined. You will be much happier if you are doing what you love
- Find extracurricular groups and experiences to get involved with -Branch outside of your usual groups and join or create new ones. Research also backs this up. The more you are involved, the more likely you are to succeed in college
- Create your own support system - This goes along with number 3. At some point you will need to form study groups or will need help along the way. We learn best collaboratively – it’s how we’re hardwired. But, you may also need support when times get tough and you get homesick or get your first bad grade
- Look for Opportunities – This one is critical to rounding out your skills and experiences. Look for summer internships, study abroad opportunities and fellowships. And don’t be afraid to gain experiences outside of the field you are studying. Many of these pay and many times your school will have scholarships that can help.
- Give back – Many of you may be the first in your families to go to college, some not. However, you now have navigated the journey and in turn can share your knowledge with those who are just beginning. Go back to your community, reach down and pull up other students who don’t know the way. This is how you can make your communities better places!
John Garcia III is a current doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.